October 04th 2002 | Jens C Brynildsen
Plasma is a brand new 3D program, but it also comes with a solid heritage. The tool is based on Discreets very expensive program 3ds max and our expectations were high. Many Flashmagazine readers have asked us to review this program and I have to say it has been a pleasure!
Some years ago, I used to make my living from creating 3D content with 3ds max 2.0 (3DS). I did mostly technical animations, but also some more artistic modeling. Among those was a music video that was primarily hand drawn in Flash. Multiple scenes required rotoscoped camera moves through a city that were done with 3ds max. At that time, there were cartoon renderers available, but they could not do SWF output. Due to this, we never made a SWF version of the finished video. If Plasma was available at that time, we could have saved massive amounts of time. ComicShop, the cartoon renderer we used, was really buggy and we spent almost one whole week tweaking our 3D models to produce acceptable results with ComicShop.
Plasma has a long registration procedure, with lots of stuff to fill out. The program will only work for a limited time unless you register it. Discreet has always been very protective of their tools. 3ds max comes with a hardware dongle in addition to the standard protection. For Plasma you need an authentication code that is sent to you via email.
Opening Plasma for the first time made me smile. Being a former 3ds max user, I instantly felt comfortable and was thinking "WOW. This is going to be fun!" I sat down and started modeling and then I remembered how much time at actually took to build decent looking 3D models. Plasma is more or less a scaled down version of 3ds max. All the modeling tools I could remember from max 2.0 were there, plus some new ones. 3ds max is currently in its fifth version, so many things must have improved since I last used the program.
What are the differences between 3ds max and Plasma? The main difference is the total lack of photorealistic renderers. To say it briefly, Plasma is for doing simple stuff on the web, while 3ds max is for creating Hollywood blockbusters with extreme quality. Due to this, there is also a difference in price. SRP for Plasma is $650 while 3ds max is $3,490.
Modeling and animation
With modeling features inherited from 3ds max, they are bound to be good. Plasma contains all the features you could wish for and more. The list is long, a lot of basic shapes, spline and mesh editing, mesh modifiers and compound objects, 21 deform tools, space warps allowing for real time physics via the Havok plugin for ShockWave, a couple of particle systems plus more.
MetaBalls was long a popular word in the 3D community. This is not part of Plasma, but it's not missed much. Metaballs is primary used for modeling organic shapes and Plasma includes Subdivision surfaces that can be used for this purpose. Using this modifier, you can start with a simple extruded mesh, and then model a crude model from there. Using Subdivision surfaces will add the missing geometry by interpolating smooth surfaces in between the vertices you have created. This and many other settings have separate values for display vs rendering, so you can work at low polygon counts and add extra geometry at render-time.
Animation is fairly straightforward. Just press the animate-button and move, rotate and scale objects. In Plasma, as in 3ds max, absolutely all parameters of an object can be animated. Objects may change color over time with extensive ease functions. Plasma lacks the possibility to add FX at render time, like in 3ds max. These effects would be things like motion blur based on the speed of the camera and objects in a scene.
Plasma supports advanced features like inverse kinematics for animating joints and has a complete bone-system to go with it. Using bones, you can export a model from a program like Poser or buy a stock-figure from Viewpoint and then add a full skeleton to move it. All you do is create the skeleton, add constraints and connect it to the model. It's actually a bit harder than that and everyone that has built a IK-system knows, but that is the basics. Many concepts in 3D programs can be explained easily but they take hours to perform unless you're a very experienced user.
Be aware that even if Plasma is a 'simple to learn' 3D program, you must expect quite some time getting used to. Getting hold of a book or two is not such a bad idea either. Most any basic max-book will teach you the modeling that can be found in Plasma as the features are almost identical (though max has many more). One of the strongest features of 3ds max is it's extensibility, using 3rd party plugins. Plasma has no support for this and will not get in the near future.
Most other 3D programs can import the 3DS format that was created by AutoDesk for use in 3DS for DOS, but Plasma can also import the project files, shape definitions, DXF files and the 3ds max formats. The only additional import format is VRML. This is rather thin, but due to the popularity of 3DS, it will be enough for most users.
Importing my old 3ds DOS and 3ds max project files was no problem at all. They all showed up in Plasma, pretty much as they would have done in the original program. Rendering them was another story. Very few of the files rendered at all. Hitting the render button made the program crash and display the message 'An error has occurred and the application will now close'. Only my simplest models were rendered properly and VRML import also crashed the application in many cases. I guess importing isn't the strongest side of Plasma.
To work efficiently with Plasma, you will need RAM and quite a lot of it. Recommended RAM available to Plasma is 256, while 128Mb is the minimum. Some of my old models caused a lack of RAM, and this gave me an excellent excuse for upgrading to 512Mb on my test machine. The performance of the program was much better after this upgrade, so my recommendation would be to at least have 512Mb RAM installed if you want to create big models.
Compared to other programs that do SWF output, Plasma is rather weak on the rendering side, and comes with just two renderers. Discreet has no plans for adding any more and says "Raytracing is not essential for the target market for plasma- meaning that most Flash artists do not find raytracing to be critical to their work." That means that if you also want to create graphics with raytraced models and shadows, you will need another 3D program.
The first of the two is a standard Scanline renderer that will output to bitmapped results. This renderer will use all the features found in the materials library, and the output looks rather good for a scanline renderer. Expect some work to get good results though.
The SWF renderer is what is the most interesting for Flash users. The engine for this is based around Vecta 3D, the first 3D application could show 3D SWF output (Took some time before it hit the market though). The application was made by IdeaWorks 3D that recently have published the brilliant software Optimaze. Vecta 3D were also available as a plugin for 3ds max, and our guess is that this is why they became a partner when Discreet wanted to create a 3D program with SWF output. The SWF output of Plasma looks good, but ever since we saw the first sample files, we have been skeptic about the file sizes produced. File size is after all Alpha & Omega for web publishing.
Lets first check out the possibilities. The SWF renderer has four main options, Gradient, Cartoon, Flat or wireframe shading. All of these are very usable and look really good. The Flat output assigns a single color to each distinct surface. This may in many cases look even better than the Cartoon output, that lets you add various levels of additional colors to illustrate shadows. The Cartoon output has a lot of possible adjustments, but most result in triangles being drawn on your objects with various colors. We can't really see the need for this, but it's probably a feature and not a bug. The gradient output will let you choose whether to use linear vs radial gradients. The gradient output is pretty, but it should have been possible for the renderer to automatically choose linear vs gradient where appropriate. Mixing the two would have produced even better looking output.
Six possible SWF outputs
For outlines, you must specify this per object. This may seem like a lot of hassle, but it's actually pretty quick as Plasma has a great selection tool that will let you select multiple objects and apply the style to many at once. Not only can you specify the outline style, but you can also specify separate styles for details and submaterials. This is pretty unique and an important feature for professional cartoon output.
Plasma does both shadows and highlights in Cartoon mode. Be aware that the number of lights used will increase your rendering time massively! Using 3 lights on our Chevy convertible versus just one, changed the rendering time per frame exponentially from 22 seconds to almost 4 minutes. The memory used for this render exceeded more than 250Mb. The same render was done almost instantly using the scanline renderer in Plasma and it makes us wonder what really happened.
It is interesting to note that Plasma does not support transparent objects. According to Discreet, "The Flash API that we were provided wasn't broad enough for us to get that kind of functionality; we're hoping the next version will be". It is however easy to fake this for still images. Make two renders, one with transparent objects and one without. Then copy the areas to be made transparent and lay them on top of the drawing without the transparent objects . Then add a gradient fill with transparency like we have done with our Chevy's front screen.
Faking transparency is fairly easy, but you wouldn't do this by hand for a long animation...
The wireframe output will render only the outlines of your objects, that is if you can get it to work at all. No matter what model we used, it kept crashing. The application itself is build rather smart, so that the player may crash without the whole program going down. If the whole program should crash, Plasma will attempt to let you save the contents of the file you are working on. During our testing, we became rather fond of this feature. Discreet are aware of the wireframe bug and will adress it in the next revision of the program.
Plasma is far from the most stable program we have used. As noted before, imported models seem to make the program more unstable. All testing were performed on a freshly installed Windows XP system that is 100% stable otherwise, so this should not be the problem. Plasma is after all a 1.0 version of a program and Discreet will no doubt fix these problems soon.
Director Shockwave 3D export
Another important feature of Plasma is export to Macromedia Directors 3D format. This is slightly off subject for Flashmagazine and we have no possibility to test this as we're not Director users. From reading the Direcor-L list, we have discovered that many use 3ds max or Maya to export to Directors ShockWave 3D (S3D) format. Plasma should be a very good budget alternative to both programs with its support for the Havoc engine in S3D.
The feature-set is complete and Plasma would be a perfect 3D tool for many beginners if there just were some additional renderers included. Plasma is now a specialty program for creating 3D for Macromedia Director and Flash. Discreet should seriously consider to lower the price on this product or add some more rendering features. That way the product would compete more directly with other semi-pro 3D programs and gain a wider audience.
Plasma is probably a brilliant way for Discreet to get people hooked on their products. The learning curve for Max is really steep, but if you've learned Plasma, you could easily adapt to Max. If you have learned a 3D program, you usually stick with it unless it falls behind technically. A lower price on Plasma, could ensure a constant flow of people eager to buy the 'full package'. At the current $650 price, many of these users will opt for a more complete 3D program with more rendering options.
For Director developers doing 3D stuff, Plasma should be a great tool at a great price. Until now, their alternatives has been to buy either 3ds max, LightWave or Maya, but Plasma is an alternative budget tool with a good feature set.
For Flash designers, this program has some of the best modeling and animation tools, but the SWF output is buggy (will be fixed) and the file sizes tend to be big. If it wasn't for that, Plasma would be the best 3D program for Flash available as of today.
BTW: Want to try Plasma and maybe win the program? Visit Pnut and StudioWhiz and join the competition currently going on.
This article makes use of sample models from the ViewPoint Catalog, a great place to find pre-built 3D models.
Visit Discreet to download the free trial version
Jens has been working with Flash since version 3 came out. Since then, he's been an active member of the Flash community. He's created more than a hundred Flash games (thus the name of his blog) but he also creates web/standalone applications, does workshops and other consulting. He loves playing with new technology and he is convinced that the moment you stop learning you die (creatively speaking). Jens is also the Editor of this website.